As the certainties and the uncertainties of Scottish nationhood become clear, the more difficult it is to make the argument for independence
What do you call something that feels inevitable but which has lost its momentum? Why, the Scottish independence movement, of course. It’s a noble crusade with its roots deep in Scotland’s sense of national identity, and the feelings of injustice that fuels it can only grow in the years to come. And yet, just now, it has come so quickly off the boil that maybe we haven’t quite noticed. Time for a quick reality check.
First off, we’re so used to seeing Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon as the absolute antithesis of one another that we’ve failed to recognise the emergence of their current consensus view – no independence referendum until the pandemic is over.
And when will that be? When will the economy have fully recovered, the threat receded and life returned completely to normal? Again, there is an apparent consensus – a couple of years at any rate. Anything could happen in that time. If the Conservatives are as silly as they have been historically, they will continue to treat Scotland as a cross between a colony and a laboratory, and the contempt will fuel Scottish indignation.
However, what if some of the shrewder voices within Tory circles prevail, and the existing machinery of cooperation is revived, Sturgeon and Drakeford are treated with respect for a change, and maybe some reforms to devolution proposed by Gordon Brown are taken up to appease the independence movement and take the edge off the SNP’s claims? What if Number 10 started to treat Bute House as an equal partner, more like a dual monarchy than a subordinate executive?
Well, it might work. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove may have their principles about the integrity of the UK, but, as Groucho Marx once said, if you don’t like them, they have others. They’ll do anything to save the Union – a negotiating position Sturgeon can make the most of if she doesn’t push her claims too far.
Nor would she want to. Everything we’ve seen about her impressive time as first minister confirms her essential caution, born of a lawyerly training and a cool temperament. She does not want, surely, to be the SNP leader who loses the second referendum and thus consigns independence to the dustbin of history for, well, let’s say a generation.
The lessons of Quebec and Catalonia, where the separatists overreached themselves, must weigh heavily with her. She won’t, and oughtn’t, even think about agitating for a new referendum or holding one unless there is a “6” at the beginning of the opinion poll rating for independence consistently for months, if not years. Lately, support for leaving the UK has slipped back to nearer 50 per cent – far too big a gamble for Sturgeon. Really overwhelming support for independence, in truth, might not actually ever happen.
Nor is Sturgeon’s mandate quite as muscular as she makes out. The SNP didn’t get its overall majority in the Scottish parliament, let alone the kind of supermajority that some prominent nationalists, such as the decidedly graceless Alex Salmond, declared was both as necessary to the cause as it was imminent to arrive. The SNP just failed to win its overall majority, true, which means we shouldn’t quibble, and has its Green allies to press the case; but the Greens are not part of the government, and she has, painfully, failed to secure the clear mandate win by Alex Salmond in the record breaking Scottish election of 2011, which forced David Cameron to grant the referendum of 2014. If the British constitution runs on precedent, the 2011 “threshold” has not been clearly met.
Those who framed the 1998 Scotland Act – the likes of Tony Blair and Donald Dewar – knew well what they were doing, and ensured that no party could easily get an overall majority. The rise of the SNP, and Labour’s historic failure, has since almost confounded their plans, but not entirely. Who is to say that the SNP, with or without the Greens, will be in power indefinitely?
The other reason why the independence argument is losing force is Brexit – a test case for an unhappy divorce. Just as with Brexit, the terms of Scottish independence – crucial stuff – are unclear and cannot be determined by Scotland alone. Indeed, ironically enough for a party built on the nation of the right of self-determination, issues such as the currency, the border with England, the free movement of peoples and so on will also be the subject of talks between London and Brussels, with Edinburgh being the piggy in the middle.
The more, in other words, about the certainties and the uncertainties of Scottish nationhood become clear, the more difficult the argument for independence becomes. It might happen one day, but maybe everyone was right in 2014, and it won’t arrive for a generation.